The One Question Scotland Did Not Consider

The One Question Scotland Did Not Consider

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The critical question the Scots did not ask themselves in their heated discussions of independence is what to do in two short decades when nearly 40 percent of their population will be over age 60. Now that they’ve voted to remain within the UK, how they organize themselves overall for their key demographic reality is a compelling economic and social question.  

Prime Minister Cameron’s promise after the vote to “offer more powers to the people of Scotland” as well as to the other parts of the UK – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – may be a good move for democracy. But tax, social, welfare, pension and health systems will only work if profound reforms are made to align with the demographics that all of the UK will have in the next generations: more old people than young.

Related: What 60 Minutes Got Right and Wrong About Aging

In a fiery speech in Glasgow before the historic vote, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a vision of Scotland’s future that is exactly the wrong direction; if adopted, it would feed into the impending fiscal crisis. Mr. Brown, assuming a 20th century demographic model, imagined how Scotland, by remaining part of the UK, would be best positioned to preserve and extend its social welfare programs into the current century as the population ages.

But for England or Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland – together or separate – Brown missed three points. They are the guts of how Prime Minister Cameron could inform his policies to meet “the millions of voices of England [that] must be heard” if it is to be consistent with economic growth and wealth creation:

The entire UK population is aging. Life spans are up, birth rates are down, and members of the post-war baby boom generation are becoming “pensioners.” The basic math just doesn’t work, not now or in the future. Oxford scholar Sarah Harper estimates that one of every three British girls born today will live to celebrate her 100th birthday.

More immediately, Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, like the rest of Europe, have to contend with their exploding aging demographics

Related: Does Scottish Independence Spell Victory or Doom?

Older workers make tremendous contributions whether they’re in Glasgow, Swansea or London when it comes to the pension system. Rather than shut out from the economy this fastest growing segment of the population, successful nations will embrace them. IBM, for example, is showing how education programs can retrain workers to excel in vital business areas. This is one way to keep older workers as contributors. If people are living well into their 90s, how can a pension system realistically support workers who retire in their 60s?

The pressures on the NHS will increase. The Scots face a funding gap in the NHS by the hundreds of millions. There’s only one direction this deficit is going. As new devices, medicines, and technologies become available – saving more lives and extending others – someone’s got to pay for it.

When the population was younger and there were fewer things to pay for, the NHS worked. Now, not only is demand increasing – so is the cost of the goods and services being demanded. To be sure, medicines once unimaginable are now commonplace – yet we’ve got to buck up and create a new system for an aging population.   

Related: 30 Percent of 'Retirees' Would Return to Labor Force

The survival of the UK should be celebrated. In this increasingly unstable world, we can use the solid partnership of a strong and reliable democracy – a united Britain. Yet to remain a relevant power, the UK needs to restructure its health and welfare systems, since in Scotland, the proportion of old to young is about the most dramatic of anywhere on the planet.

Prime Minister Cameron will note that the other parts of the UK are equally old. Absent a sudden baby boom, they are certain to get older. There’s no vote on that.

This article was updated on Monday, September 22, 2014, to reflect the percentage of Scots who will be over age 60 in two decades. 

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.